Jan 14: Palmer Port Call

Post by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck.

Before we can really start our work, the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) needs to make a stop at Palmer Station to unload fresh food and supplies for people onshore and to also pick up some people and lab equipment that we’ll need for the cruise.

Palmer Station is one of the three United States bases in Antarctica, with South Pole and McMurdo being the other two. It is the mid-sized station of the three, with the population maxing out somewhere between 40 and 50 people, while McMurdo is the largest (~2,000) and South Pole is the smallest (20 to 30). It’s located on the southern end of the beautiful Anvers Island in the western Antarctic Peninsula, tucked in and slightly sheltered from the open Southern Ocean.

Our stop at Palmer Station is always a little bittersweet. We say goodbye to some of the people that we’ve gotten to know and enjoy during the Drake crossing, scientists that use the LMG as a passenger ship instead of a research platform. But we also say hello to members of our own team who have been living and working at Palmer Station since October. They’ve been working from the labs on station and they also use zodiacs, basically heavy duty inflatable rafts, to sample the waters in the immediate vicinity. The boating limit around Palmer station is about 2 miles, encompassing a large number of islands that support a number of marine bird populations. All science is pretty much restricted to this area, but teams from station work hard to make the most of the natural world that is available to them.

The port call is usually a very busy time; off-loading cargo, on-loading whole labs, using the scales and chemical supplies at station to fill in the gaps we’ve noticed in our own labs on the boat. But during our brief stay, we usually manage to squeeze in some last minute shore time and a bit of sight-seeing for the people who have never been to station before. One of the stops usually includes a zodiac ride to an Adelie penguin colony on one of the nearby islands. Half of the island is open to visitors and we’re allowed to walk around, observing the adult penguins huddling over their already large chicks. Predatory skuas fly by overhead, waiting for an opening provided by a careless parent. Skuas have also been known to be interested in the humans that come to the island, with stories of this very large bird trying to snatch the hat right from your head.

We also make time for a quick hike around the “backyard,” a large stretch of rocky land behind Palmer Station. This stretch of land behind the station includes rocky hills that lead up to a small glacier, which we’re allowed to walk up to get a better view of the beautiful surrounding islands, water, and mountains. The only dangers associated with the glacier are the deep crevasses that form and a safe path created and marked with threadbare blue flags. Ice all around Palmer Station has been receding over the years, opening up dangerous crevasses that can be very deep.

The day ends with station extending an invitation to the boat inhabitants to have dinner “cross-town.” It’s meant to be a bit of a joke, as the entrance to the station galley is only about 30 meters from the gangplank of the boat. This is a very kind gesture by the station folk, as it essentially doubles the amount of food that their cooks have to prepare. It’s also something that the group from the boat values because the food on station is so amazingly delicious! After about a day and a half of steady work and some late afternoon socializing, we’re ready to begin our cruise.

About David Malmquist

David Malmquist is the Director of Communications at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary.
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